Not Your Standard Issue

Architects design one-of-a-kind houses for the Fifth Ward, trying to prove that even lower-end houses don't have to be a cookie-cutter box

For the Fifth Ward, Michael designed Glass House @2°, the most livable in his series of glass houses, but he thought of it, too, as a "query." The vouchers, he believed, urged their low-income recipients to disappear into the suburbs and live like middle-class people -- or, as Michael puts it, "to assume the cloak of the normative." But why hide behind bourgeois brick walls? Why not force the world to take a good, long look at your disenfranchised self? Besides, isn't privacy a fiction nowadays? And doesn't glass work both ways? Doesn't it allow the occupant to gaze back at the city -- in a way, to embrace and own gleaming downtown Houston?

Glass House @2° is basically two rectangular glass boxes, connected like conjoined twins by a short passageway. One box contains the living room, dining room and kitchen; the other, two bedrooms and a bath. Each of the long outer walls curves the tiniest bit. Occupants of other glass houses might feel that they live inside a fishbowl. The occupants of Michael's would eat dinner under a magnifying glass.

Michael's concessions to the real world were, like his house, minimal. A bamboo fence would surround the yard, and some of the bedrooms' outer walls were opaque, so that a visitor approaching the front door wouldn't have a clear view of a couple tangled in bedsheets. But the long walls separating the bedroom from the backyard were not only clear and curved, like the living area's, but situated above an outdoor reflecting pool. In bed, the occupants were not only under a magnifying glass but in front of a mirror.

The glass house offers life within a rectangular fishbowl.
Courtesy Mike Bell
The glass house offers life within a rectangular fishbowl.
Flip a wall, and the outdoors becomes part of the InSideOutSide House.
Courtesy Studio Works
Flip a wall, and the outdoors becomes part of the InSideOutSide House.

The architecture firm Studio Works is based in Los Angeles, but its principals, Mary-Ann Ray and Robert Mangurian, are also academics and sometimes taught at Rice. They, too, took a radical approach to the idea of shelter: Why make a huge distinction between indoors and outdoors? they asked. But their InSideOutSide House made the question seem less like a philosophical exercise than a romp. Many of its exterior walls could pivot open, expanding a room to include a grassy courtyard at a moment's notice. In the master bedroom, a TV was embedded in a swinging wall. The occupant could lie in bed, watching the news -- or, if the weather was fine, swing open the wall, pop open a lawn chair and watch from outside. The kitchen expanded to include a built-in outdoor barbecue grill, near a nifty little greenhouse. Even the outdoors looked a bit like the indoors; in a back courtyard, Studio Works drew an overgrown table, tall enough for people to stand in the shade underneath; and they proposed to outfit the outdoor spaces with quirky furniture, like a chair-on-a-skateboard that could be quickly rolled inside in case of rain. For the family's dog, they designed a BowWow House.

Among such high-concept company, Deborah Morris's garden house seemed shockingly conventional. Deborah, who teaches at the University of Houston, is a principal in Morris Gutierrez, a little firm that happily accepts projects as humble as a bathroom renovation, and her down-to-earth, easy-to-build design can be read as a mild rebuke to some of the competition's wilder schemes. Her L-shaped house looks cleanly modern but not shocking; it's a descendant of familiar Texas forms, such as the shotgun house, the ranch, the bungalow and the dogtrot. The most striking thing about the place is its garden -- a feature that ultimately would display the wild creativity of not the architect but the gardener.

Deborah knew that other architects would find her house decidedly unhip, even (shudder) "cute." She didn't care; she cared more about the potential home buyers, and rather than challenging them, she wanted to offer what she thought they wanted, at a price they could afford: three bedrooms, two baths, good ventilation, good design, nothing wild.

Deborah and her Morris Gutierrez colleagues stayed late at the office to build the model. They ate pizza and drank wine, and just to provoke their severe, head-in-the-clouds colleagues, they made the model downright adorable. Green tea leaves formed its lawn, and sprigs of artsy-craftsy dried flowers stood for fruit trees. Sunflower seeds, their tips pointed skyward, indicated plants. The bushes were cut from loofah sponges.

Forget the philosophical questions, the model seemed to say. Here's a nice place to live.

Michael wanted the show to be perfect, and on opening night, at 5:45 p.m., he helped Emily Todd, then the executive director of DiverseWorks, mop the exhibit room's floor. The exhibit itself, he thought, looked great. Each of the 16 models was laid out on a specially built table, and each table formed one side of a square; the effect was like looking at four city blocks. Slides of the real Fifth Ward would be projected against a wall -- photos of the real here-and-now serving as a backdrop for the architects' dreams.

By 7:30 p.m. DiverseWorks was packed: Roughly 900 people showed up. The crowd was notable not just for its size but for its composition. Besides DiverseWorks's usual core of black-clad art lovers, there were Fifth Ward residents and other non-artsy civilians simply interested in affordable, well-designed houses. Once again, the project had taken Michael by surprise. He watched, fascinated, as people smiled or grimaced at the models, imagining what it would be like to live in that.

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